At some point, every great champion starts to get old, starts to lose it. He slows down a little, flinches some, loses belief. Rather than seeing that, you would almost rather he just left a little early.
I don’t want to feel sorry for Roger Federer. It makes me sick to my stomach. But Rafael Nadal crushed him Friday in Miami, 6-3, 6-2, and Federer’s game looked obsolete, his greatness past tense.
So that’s it? Federer, at 29, is old? Or maybe the gods just invented the perfect anti-Federer in Rafael Nadal. There also is my argument of choice:
Federer is never going to win another major championship with that antique racquet.
Friday’s match was the final convincing ground for holdouts in denial about Federer’s downward arrow. Nadal crushed him on a hard court. He is now better than Federer in every way, on every surface.
So which one is Federer’s problem? Age? Nadal? Equipment? Here is my answer:
I’ve argued that Federer isn’t looking old yet. But on Friday, he was far slower than Nadal. That’s no crime. Almost everyone is. The gap, though, looked wider than ever.
It’s almost as if Nadal were built for counteracting Federer. As a left-hander, he can crush crosscourt forehands to easily attack Federer’s backhand. His heavy topspin bounces the ball up into the weak spot of Fed’s one-hander.
On top of that, Nadal is five years younger. And he takes advantage of modern racquet and string technology, giving him even more firepower and more spin to attack Federer.
Federer’s problems now work together in a group. But he can’t do anything about age and Nadal.
One thing he can, and must, do:
Get. Rid. Of. That. Old. Flexible. Wilson. Racquet.
Federer got snippy after the match Friday, saying he was tired of people asking him, roughly, if he’s washed up. Who wouldn’t be? And while I lay into his problems here, he still is the third best player in the world.
But he would jump right back ahead of Novak Djokovic, who’s No. 2, if he would just modernize. If he doesn’t, then he’s just waiting for Juan Martin del Potro to fully get back from wrist surgery, and blow right past him, too.
I understand that Federer won a record number of majors with that racquet. Bjorn Borg won all his majors with a wood racquet, and when he tried, briefly, to come back, no one was using a tiny wood racquet anymore.
Borg tried anyway.
It didn’t work.
Remember Jimmy Connors’ last, great run through the U.S. Open? He was old. If he had still been using his old steel Wilson T-2000 racquet, then he wouldn’t have won three games. In fact, he would have already been off the tour.
Technology has its own generations, and they come faster now than ever. Thanks to super stiff racquets with super stiff polyester strings, players can swing as hard as they want and keep the ball on the court.
First time I put modern strings in a modern racquet, I felt as if I were cheating.
At the Australian Open, I asked Paul Annacone, Federer’s coach, whether technology was Federer’s problem. He said it was only one tiny piece of an issue. But later, he also said that people can now swing away and keep the ball in.
So supersized players – del Potro, Robin Soderling, Tomas Berdych – with modern technology in their hands are crushing the ball like never before and keeping it on the court.
Meanwhile, Federer stands back with a one-handed backhand, and a racquet flexing and giving. Those big guys have knocked him out of three of the past six majors.
You really think Soderling and Berdych are better than Federer? No way.
But the big guys push him backward. Meanwhile, Federer swings as hard as he can and still can’t hit the ball hard enough to get it past Nadal.
When he hired Annacone, who urged him to become more aggressive, that seemed to be a sign that Federer wasn’t in denial anymore. He was willing to advance with the times.
Apparently, he was only willing to go so far.
Maybe he just feels that racquets don’t make the player. Some people have argued that in baseball, steroids don’t hit the home runs. Players still have to connect bat to ball.
True enough, greatness still has to come from inside. But if you hit the bat to the ball AND are on steroids, then you will hit it harder and farther.
Why else were players juicing?
These modern racquets and strings are like playing on steroids.
I have asked Federer about it a few times, and he always gives the same, maddening answer: Technology isn’t the problem. Then, if you press him, he acknowledges that it is helping other players.
Why not let hit help him, too?
Federer isn’t driving toward anything, but rather fighting something off. He only has things to lose. And from here, his age is just going to show more.
But he’s only losing to a handful of players. With one quick move, he would distance himself from Soderling and Berdych, hold off del Potro a little longer, and be better than Djokovic again.
He still wouldn’t be as good as Nadal, though.
Technology can only do so much.